This report about Nintendo’s strategy for its next generation platform ties in nicely with a thought I had today. Namely, that the real conflict for the direction that videogames as an interactive media should take isn’t really that between narrative and ludos: it’s about different drives for participating in the media themselves based on the demographics, and in effect is a conflict between videogaming as agon (from Caillois’ typology of games and play) and videogaming under all other possible auspices.
This year’s E3 supposedly was about “the death of the hardcore gamer.” Summed up as the GWD segment (“guys without dates,”) the hardcore gamer is the canonical audience/market for the game industry to date: a dedicated fan who spends hundreds, even thousands of hours a year playing challenging videogames, developing skills, besting opponents real and virtual, etc.
The idea that games must challenge, must inherently be at least initially difficult, that the meta-narrative for the game interaction involve developing a kind of mastery over the game-artifact, is an assumption that underlies the more defensive posture of the gaming community in the US.
I think there’s a relationship between the function that videogames have in the lives, particularly, of young males, and what seems to me to be the socio-biological foundation for play in general. Play is a mechanism by which the young can develop the skills required for survival and mastery in relative safety, and once those skills are recruited to the needs of survival, the attraction of “playing” at them dissipates.
What I think this means is that the appeal of agon lasts until the instincts for competition, mastery and such are cathected into one’s social and/or professional life. If that cathexis never occurs, one could conceivably continue to find games of agon inherently appealing; otherwise, the joy of play migrates from being a realm of mastery to a realm of conviviality, or aesthetic experience.
The “tyranny of agon” seems stronger in the US than in Japan. Perhaps one might attribute this to a more competitive, individualistic culture in the US, but I sort of doubt it. Japanese society has intense competitive pressures of its own and traditions of competition as strong as any culture’s. Rather, I think this has more to do with the details of the market in Japan: my casual observation was that there was considerably more intergenerational participation in videogame purchase and play. Most game consoles are located in the family room. Virtually every Japanese household I know that reported having a game console indicated that play occurred with the whole family; parents knew exactly what their kids were playing to an extent that one doesn’t see in the US, and often played with them. Rather than this leading to sort of a cleaned-up “family friendly” game culture, it rather seemed to lead to one in which there was a larger market in games that weren’t necessarily motivated by the desire to demonstrate mastery over one’s peers. Not that those games don’t exist (after all, most all of the best fighting games are from Japan); rather, a substantial market for music and dance games, virtual toys, romance sims, and other non-agonistic games co-exists with the games of competition. It’s inconceivable, with the current dominant game culture in America, that Boku no Natsuyasumi could ever enjoy the kind of success that it has in Japan.
I think that’s going to be the upcoming source of discord: the conflict between the GWD and those whose motivations resemble them, who expect games to inherently be difficult and the pleasure of gaming to be about surmounting difficulty and besting obstacles and opponents, and those whose pleasures could lie in vertigo or simulation. At its root, it is a conflict of pleasures.